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April 3, 2006 | by  | in Books |
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Leaving Home

“Not everyone is born to fulfil an heroic role,” states Emma Roberts, the narrator of Leaving Home, implying that even unheroic types, like herself, can console themselves with the fact that they are relevant in their own way. Brookner lets Emma come to this conclusion on the last page of the book, after putting her through a drastic upheaval.

After living, until she was twenty-five, in a small London flat with her mother, Emma leaves home to pursue her post-graduate studies (in classical garden design), in Paris. She has spent the beginning of her semi-adult life watching her widowed mother seclude herself with her books and her daughter, and does not want to suffer the same fate. Distancing herself from her uncle, Rob, upon whom she and her invalided mother are financially dependent, Emma does decide to move on, and widen her extraordinarily narrow horizons.

Paris provides her with a friend – something new to Emma. Francoise Desnoyers, a blasé Parisian, who also happens to be the only daughter of a widowed mother, attaches herself to Emma after they meet in a library. It is Francoise’s influence that encourages Emma to look after herself and figure out what she wants out of her, so far, dull life. Brookner is remarkably subtle in leading Emma gradually away from the bland comforts of home and into a life which is complicated and upsetting, but which, ultimately, must be lived.

It’s only when her uncle sends dreadful news that requires her return to London, that Emma realises how far she’s come. We’ve all had that feeling, leaving home to university, or other countries, then coming back to the family house, pets and parents. all of which seem to have aged, whereas really it’s just us. In Emma’s case this experience is particularly affecting: her home had been her major point of reference for twenty-five years, and her only parent, with whom she’d lived there, has died.

Following the death of her mother, Emma is forced to make decisions. She has money, but no strong friends or family to keep her anywhere. There is Francoise, the Parisian friend whose mother is fond of inviting Emma to parties dripping with insincerity. There is Philip Hudson, the doctor who was invited to a dinner party only to be set up with Emma, in London. There is Michael, the man who lives next door to Emma in Paris, who has developed a strange platonic relationship with her over years of researching.

Observing Emma, an intelligent, likeable, but occasionally frustrating narrator, vaccilate between people and places is, as another reviewer has noted, “captivating as any thriller.” Brookner has a precision to her writing that enables her to make a whole, satisfying book out of practically one character doing only one thing – leaving home. Similar to Muriel Spark in this sense, Brookner gives her narrator all the intelligence and wherewithal necessary to recover from a painful situation, but she doesn’t let her do it quickly. My only quibble with this book is that the pattern in which Emma moves between France and London when something gets too much for her becomes tedious. I must admit though that this tedium does mirror Emma’s personal life travelling round in circles. However, tedium doesn’t have to be felt by a reader to be understood.

Anita Brookner
Penguin, $27.00

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